Pastor Terry Jones's Koran-burning threat started with a tweet

At least 11 people were injured in Afghanistan on Friday as thousands protested plans by a tiny Florida church to burn the Muslim holy book.
By Ann Gerhart and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 10, 2010; 10:56 PM

On the afternoon of July 12, the Rev. Terry Jones fired off a series of messages on Twitter, decrying Islam as fascism and President Obama's support for a new Kenyan constitution that could permit abortion and codify Islamic law. His final one for the day said this: 9/11/2010 Int Burn a Koran Day.

With that abbreviated declaration, the fringe pastor from Gainesville, Fla., began a crusade that two months later culminated in deadly riots in Afghanistan, threats from jihadists and pleas from world leaders that Jones call off his inflammatory stunt.

The escalation of tweet to tense global spectacle is a story of hate and distrust amplified by tools of instant communication. Enabled by a burst of saturation media coverage this week, Jones shrewdly tapped into controversy over an Islamic center planned near Ground Zero and the fears of millions that Islam is a religion of violence.

Friday, as security forces in India braced for new waves of protests, Jones still was flirting with lighting a book-burning bonfire at his Dove World Outreach Center. Another provocateur, Randall Terry, pledged that he would tear out Koran pages in front of the White House on Saturday morning, during services commemorating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Two days after Jones sent his tweet and started a Facebook group, an organization that monitors news about Islam rang the first alarm bell. EuroIslam.Info, a collection of news and analysis headed by a Harvard professor of divinity, picked up the Dove World mission statement - "To bring to awareness to the dangers of Islam and that the Koran is leading people to hell" - and posted it on its "Islamaphobia Observatory" section. By July 21, the Council on American-Islamic Relations was calling for Koran education sessions to refute the burnings.

On July 23, Jones was tweeting about having more than 700 Facebook friends for his International Burn a Koran group. Next, he did a short interview on CNN, and after that, on July 30, the National Association of Evangelicals, one of the largest collections of such churches, denounced the event and urged Jones to call it off.

Still, the stunt caused little commotion domestically, even as senior officials within the FBI, the State Department and military intelligence watched warily for the news to inflame sentiment in the Middle East and Asia.

"This is not the first time something like this has happened," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday. Other pastors had burned Korans before and posted video on YouTube. "But what is different is the potential that the world will be watching and reacting," because of the contentious debate over the proposed Islamic center at Ground Zero.

About the same time, in early August, Muslim Facebook users began receiving chain messages asking them to join groups formed to decry the plan to burn copies of Islam's holy book.

Shakir Stanikzai, 29, of Kabul was one of them. He said the issue didn't spark widespread anger in Afghanistan until about a week ago, after news media outlets in Muslim countries replayed that first Jones television interview, which also circulated on the Internet.

"After the interview on CNN, it got very hot," Stanikzai said. "People started seriously thinking about it."

In early August, a Sunni scholars' center at al-Azhar University in Cairo issued a statement condemning the plan to burn Korans and warning that doing so could have "dangerous consequences."

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